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British Gothic Literature 101: The Sublime


The British Gothic Literature 101 series aims to offer an in-depth analysis of the literary conventions recurrently encompassing most British novels written between 1760-1900. It will draw on spiritual insights and psychological themes correlated with the Gothic Psyche to reveal that there is more subtext in Gothic fiction than meets the reading eye. The British Gothic Literature 101 series aspires to pinpoint the defining elements of its genre, in order to provide a vehicle for the reading audience to explore considerations of the darker side of human nature with greater ease. Another reason it will strive to break down the literary tropes is to offer a breeding ground of inspiration to the modern aspiring writers of the genre.

British Gothic Literature 101 will be divided into the following table of contents:

  1. British Gothic Literature 101: The Doppelgänger

  2. British Gothic Literature 101: Horror & Terror

  3. British Gothic Literature 101: The Sublime

  4. British Gothic Literature 101: The Supernatural

  5. British Gothic Literature 101: The Damsel in Distress

  6. British Gothic Literature 101: The Anti-Hero

British Gothic Literature 101: The Sublime

The late 18th century was marked by the emergence and flourishing of the Gothic fiction genre. During this period, the Romantics sought to conserve nature against the unfolding Industrial Revolution. They aspired to cultivate civil religion-based patriotism and national traditions, as well as establish natural rights, including liberty and equality. To advance their cause, they employed narratives that encouraged the creation of sublime rhetoric. A central principle of this rhetoric was reaching a transcendent spirit through nature (Smith, 2018, p.3). This newfound fascination with the sublime was prominent in literary, critical, and philosophical works. The prevalence of the sublime in Gothic literature ranges from dark romances to supernatural mysteries. This article aspires to pinpoint the conception of the sublime and define its essence, commencing from the sublime theories of Longinus, Burke, and Kant. It will further attempt to explore triggers of the sublime experience as well as delve into the religious interpretations related to it.

Defining the Sublime

Morris (1985) first made the connection between the Gothic and the sublime when he said that sublimity was a common occurrence and an essential component of Gothic literature (pp. 314-315). Nadal (2020) also reviews the Gothic sublime as a kind of “longing for plenitude, infinity -even transcendence- opposed by self-destructive drives” (pp. 373-387) and “the Gothic -negative, oceanic- sublime” following the Gothic sublime theory of Mishra (1994, p. 225). Mountains served as the topographical centre of the Romantic sublime, and early Wordsworth initially identified the sublime with the exaltation of mountain tops (in other words, the sublime features of the Alps). Romantic poets emphasise that nobility of soul is necessary for some features of the sublime style (the grandeur of mind combined with the intensity of love). Wordsworth (1850) describes the sublime as “the soul’s obscure sense / of possible sublimity, to which / With growing faculties she doth aspire” (The Prelude, II, pp. 336-8). Commentaries on the sublime date back to the Greeks, as manifested in Peri Hypsous (c. 100 AD), written by Longinus. The concept of the sublime refers to a writing style that elevates itself beyond the ordinary. Longinus also identifies five sources of sublimity: great thoughts, strong emotions, certain figures of thought and speech, noble diction, and dignified word arrangement. The effects of the Sublime are a loss of rationality, an alienation that leads to identification with the artist's creative process, and a deep emotion mixed with pleasure and exaltation (Trott, 1998).

Figure 1: An Avalanche in the Alps (de Loutherbourg, 1803)

Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry (1757) linked the sublime to experiences of awe, terror, and danger. Burke viewed nature as capable of triggering the strongest sensations in its beholders:

“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (p. 499).

As indicated by Burke’s theory, the things which bring sublimity are violent in perspective of strength, spectacular in perspective of quality, and extrasensory in the perspective of vehicle. Our senses are influenced by power, obscurity, boundlessness, continuity, consistency, and “painful pleasures" (Burke, 1757, p. 63), all related to masculine “sublimity”. Burke (1757) maintained that the sensual quality of sublime objects requires these objects to possess specific features. First, the vastness in size, which is the most obvious difference between sublimity and beauty. Secondly, obscurity is another aspect of sublimity. Obscure things call forth sublimity due to terror and uncertainty. Awareness of the extent to which one situation will be dangerous makes one feel less terrified, and consequently, experiences no sublimity. Thirdly, unfamiliar power is a factor in arousing the sublime. Powerful animals terrify humans, as their power could generate destruction and damage. The sublime, by contrast, according to Kant, is a principle of disorder (Barnouw, 1980). It is the phenomenon of our understanding encountering something which it cannot organise or contain. It cannot determine a delimiting organising principle in the obscure object, because it cannot determine its limits (Gilmore, n.d.). The 18th-century sublime always implied an inherent instability and lack of control: “Gothic sublimity -by releasing into fiction images and desires long suppressed, deeply hidden, forced into silence- greatly intensifies the dangers of an uncontrollable release from restraint” (Morris, 1985, p. 306).

Figure 2: Portraits of Edmund Burke & Immanuel Kant (Reynolds & Becker, 1768)

The Sublime Experience

Awe, veneration, and emotional clarity that surpass rational boundaries are all effects of sublime encounters, whether they occur in nature or in the creative act. The Romantics claimed that encouraging reason and science hindered inspiration, which was harmful to artistic endeavours. Instead, the Romantics believed that inspiration came from the beauty and the sublime, especially in their natural state (Smith, 2018, p.10). The enlightened scientist explores the natural world rationally, observing and controlling his emotions and biases to understand the objective, quantifiable truths in the form of facts. On the other hand, the natural world occupies the emotional and creative space of the Gothic writer. The sublime is a clash of the subjective-internal (emotional) and the objective-external in both Romantic and Gothic literature. It occurs as one allows their emotions to overwhelm their rationality the moment they experience the wonder of creation.

Given the sublime’s emotional essence, it is traditionally considered something one must experience alone. It is no coincidence that Rousseau's last work was titled “Reveries of a Solitary Walker” (Yousef, 1999). Along the same lines, Wordsworth also wrote of himself experiencing nature alone (1807): "They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude/ And then my heart with pleasure fills" (I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, pp. 21-23). Similarly, Victor Frankenstein found tranquillity either by sailing alone or traversing the mountains (Shelley, 1998). Traditional Romantics, like Wordsworth, explicitly link the sublime to nature, and the artist, poet, or simply the Romantic experiences the sublime by taking in the splendour of nature. Inside the scene, the Romantics used their unique powers of observation to transform the mundane into the beautiful or the sublime. By observing and meditating on, instead of merely seeing, Romantics found the spiritual essence of objects in the Romantic moment. The sublime moves away from the boundaries of representation and toward an excess of aesthetics or non-representability, especially as observed by the merely picturesque (Trott, 1998).

Figure 3: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (Friedrich, 1818)

The act of devotion to nature in general, or one of its objects in particular, led to a new appreciation of beauty or the experience of the sublime. But it is important not to confuse or reduce the sublime to simple beauty. Rather, Romantics are interested in natural experiences that utterly consume human existence, perhaps overwhelm it, and give a humbling sense of wonder and majesty of the natural world. They are not restrained to the definitive meaning of beauty, which implies symmetry and balance. The modern sublime shifts away from the classical aesthetic emphasis on regularity and harmony, to emphasise irregular, even chaotic forces (Trott, 1998). It is also remarkable how romantic poets elevate their language to the point where it is highly emotionally charged, and how they embrace the irrational in an effort to elicit in their readers a sense of the sublime. For instance, Wordsworth (1807) in his description of the natural effect: "The waves beside them danced; but they/ Out-did the sparkling waves in glee/ A poet could not but be gay/ In such a jocund company" (pp. 13-16), as well as Mary Shelley (1998) in the scene with Victor wandering alone in the Alps.

Religious Connotations

The sublime has its roots in religion, as the infinity of the sacred inspires the aspirant’s reverence (Trott, 1998). Coleridge also taps into the religious dimension of the sublime: “Where neither whole nor parts, but unity, as boundless or endless allness –the Sublime” (Bunyan, 1990, p. 113). Before the Romantics, the sublime was normally related to the traditional Christian religion. According to the latter, faith is the means of understanding truths that transcend rationality and empirical experience. St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican is designed to represent and evoke the sublimity of God or experiencing the divine; one stands overwhelmed by its immensity and grandeur. All these sublime experiences simultaneously make an individual feel small and insignificant, and in touch with the element that has overwhelmed their existence, be it nature, the universe, God, or all at once (Morris, 1972).

As an Orthodox Christian, Edmund Burke (1757) argued that beauty refined taste, national sentiment should protect that which had survived the test of time, and the sublime could take humans to the spiritual level. However, Burke also realised that horror could be sublime. This idea led Romantics to take up the supernatural, as demonstrated by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories (Smith, 2018). The Romantics were convinced that God and the experience of the sublime were intertwined, as for some “God was manifest in nature; for others, the sublime in nature revealed a transcendent God. And for still others, God was manifest and transcendent, or in Percy Shelley’s case, did not exist at all” (Smith, 2018, p. 1). Shelley was an atheist who believed the human mind was God, yet he greatly appreciated the aesthetic in nature and became an outlaw in defence of natural rights.

Figure 4: The Great Day of His Wrath (Martin, 1851)

The Romantic perception of nature is open to multiple interpretations. Some Romantics “developed a pantheistic theology arguing that God pervaded nature, or, at the least, it reflected God’s plan” (Smith, 2018, p. 15). According to the Romantics, the most beautiful objects may be found in nature, and when concepts are tied to them, those ideas become even more alluring. Their aesthetic philosophy strengthened the notion that audiences may be moved to awe by the sublime in nature and hinted at the possibility of experiencing transcendent spirituality. Additionally, nature gave people a powerful emotional aspect they could access using their senses. Natural rights, which might be preserved by republican democracy, were also produced by returning mankind to nature. And the majority of folktales originated in nature, giving Romantics narratives for their poetry, writing, and rhetoric (Smith, 2018). However, a mythological story would be found or concocted by the author. The author could/would draw the reader in by utilising a well-known cultural story as a frame, who would then be exposed to a subliminal, rhetorical message. The mythical story conveyed the message, while enabling the author to appeal to a wider audience, including those who opposed the writer's viewpoint (Smith, 2018).


According to literary critics, Romanticism has emerged as a reaction against the Enlightenment by emphasising emotional response and intuition over clinical knowledge. In contrast to the Enlightenment's logical reasoning, Romantic literature finds personal delight in nature's beauty. Gothic literature subverts this aesthetic response by generating delight and perplexity out of horror. The sublime, a key motif in many narratives, is triggered by this usage of the horror aspect. In Gothic novels, the sublime denotes an experience, which goes far beyond merely appreciating natural beauty. With the gothic aesthetic philosophy infused in these works, the Gothic protagonist can be driven to awe by the sublime found in nature and is able to experience a transcendent spirituality.

Bibliographical References

Barnouw, J. (1980). The morality of the sublime: Kant and Schiller. Studies in Romanticism, 19(4), pp. 497-514.

Bunyan, D. (1990). Compulsive repetition and “The Ancient Mariner”: Coleridge's romantic “uncanny”. Journal of Literary Studies, 6 (1-2), pp. 105-125.

Burke E. (1757). A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. Oxford University Press.

Gilmore, R. (n.d.) Philosophical beauty: The sublime in the beautiful in Kant's third critique and Aristotle's poetics. The Paideia Project. Retrieved from,any%20limits%20to%20the%20thing.

Longinus, C. (1st cent.). Peri hypsous. The University of Michigan Library.

Mishra, V. (1994). The Gothic sublime. State University of New York Press.

Morris, D.B. (1972). The religious sublime: Christian poetry and critical tradition in

18th-century England. Literature in English, 44.

Morris, D. B. (1985). Gothic sublimity. The sublime and the beautiful: Reconsiderations. New Literary History, 16(2), pp. 299-319.

Nadal, M. (2000). Beyond the gothic sublime: Poe's Pym or the journey of equivocal (e)motions. The Mississippi Quarterly, 53(3), pp. 373-387.

Shelley, M. (1998). Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus: The 1818 text. Oxford University Press.

Smith, C. R. (2018). Romanticism, rhetoric and the search for the sublime: A Neo-romantic theory for our time. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Trott, N. (1998). The picturesque, the beautiful, and the sublime: A companion to romanticism. Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

Wordsworth, W. (1807). I wandered lonely as a cloud. Retrieved from

Wordsworth, W. (1850). The prelude. Retrieved from

Yousef, N. (1999). Wollstonecraft, Rousseau and the revision of romantic subjectivity. Studies in Romanticism, 38(4), pp. 537-557.

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Anny Polyzogopoulou